Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
Auburn got down by double digits — 17 points — and came back to win.
I think it’s happened some this season, but I can’t be sure.
Either way, it happened today, and in one of the unlikeliest fashions you could imagine.
It also came against the school that many feel has become a de facto rival to Auburn with Bruce Pearl at the helm — his former school, Tennessee. Auburn has been in close battle with the Volunteers for the last few years, “splitting” (you mean, winning) the SEC regular season championship in 2018 before obliterating Tennessee last year in the SEC Championship Game. Bruce has made it a habit to beat the Vols, and he hasn’t lost to them in three years. Today was no different, although it was a little circuitous. Not quite the domination we saw in Nashville last March.
Auburn found itself mired in the same swamp of bad shots, horrible accuracy, and a lack of Isaac Okoro that had resulted in two straight losses. With Missouri and Georgia fresh in the minds of everyone, today had the distinct possibility of turning into a horrible loss, one that would end the home winning streak and give everyone some serious pause when thinking about postseason chances.
Things looked good early, when Allen Flanigan swished a three-pointer a minute in. If you’ve watched Auburn since Okoro left the lineup with an injury, you’d know that Flanigan hasn’t been the most reliable shooter. A make from distance was a regular omen of good fortune. Instead, it was one of three made shots from behind the arc in the first half. Auburn just got one of their good shots out of the way early.
Midway through the first half, Auburn trailed 21-16 with Yves Pons’ made three, but Jordan Bowden was about to take over for the Vols. He scored the next 11 points for Tennessee, establishing a 32-26 lead by himself, and at the end of the first half, the Vols led 41-33 over Auburn. They’d shot 52% from the floor, while the Tigers hit just 35% of the shots overall. Something had to change, but maybe the team just needed a little kick in the rear end.
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl on what inspired comeback win: “I challenged their manhood” pic.twitter.com/KPtBv2vMuE— Main Team (@MainTeamSports) February 23, 2020
Bruce reportedly kicked everyone except for players out of the locker room at halftime, and peeled the paint. It worked, but it took a few minutes of the second half before his kick in the butt took effect.
Tennessee took their 8-point halftime lead, and turned it into a 17-point second half lead on Bowden’s short jumper. 54-37, Vols. That’s when the game turned, and it was in large part thanks to the play off the bench from a guy that many have been clamoring for.
Jaylin Williams finally got into the rotation in Athens on Wednesday night, but today he was a focal member of the comeback. His bucket with 14:17 left cut the lead to 54-39, and started a 10-0 run that included a pair of threes from Samir Doughty. After a media timeout, that run extended to 18-0, with Devan Cambridge’s three putting Auburn on top for the first time in a long while.
Just wait for the noise...— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) February 22, 2020
18 UNANSWERED BY AUBURN. pic.twitter.com/huCD1QKWRd
An 18-0 run. Why didn’t Tennessee coach Rick Barnes call a timeout during that span?
He said that his guys wouldn’t have known what to do anyway. That’s a paraphrase, but it’s pretty much what he said. Pretty damning statement, but Auburn somehow bamboozled a team that was in total control of the game up to that point. Is Auburn Arena that intimidating? Maybe so. Once you get a little juice in the building, it’s tough for an opponent to make things work. There’s a reason that Auburn’s only lost two games in there since the beginning of last season.
Anyway, Auburn’s 18-0 run stopped when Tennessee found its footing, and the two teams went back and forth until the Tigers got three free throws from Danjel Purifoy to take a 62-60 lead wit 4:00 remaining. Nothing much happened over the next couple of minutes, but Cambridge hit another huge three with 1:36 to play after Jordan Bowden had tied the game again. Up 67-64, the Tigers made their free throws and won by a touchdown in the end, 73-66.
Today’s game featured a duel between Samir Doughty (22 points) and Jordan Bowden (28 points), but Doughty was the only Tiger in double figures. Despite that, it was a very even scoring effort, with the other eight players that saw time all scoring. What was the difference in today’s game? Both teams shot roughly the same (45% for Tennessee, 42% for Auburn), both teams hit 35% from downtown, and made roughly the same amount of free throws (16 for the Vols, 18 for Auburn).
So what changed the game?
Auburn had EIGHTEEN steals in the game, and forced 24 turnovers on the day. That’s the difference. Without Okoro in the game, the defensive plays had to come from another spot, and it turned out to be Jaylin Williams providing the spark. He had three steals, and maybe the highlight play of the day:
Jaylin Williams off the backboard to himself @AuburnMBB remains undefeated in the Jungle! pic.twitter.com/eEfVv0fEV4— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) February 22, 2020
The official box score called this a “two-point tip shot”. Okay.
After watching Williams today, you have to wonder what kept him on the bench, especially when our rotation has been fairly thin at times. To be honest, as long as he keeps getting minutes once Okoro returns, then I’ll be happy. Speaking of Isaac, we’ve got Ole Miss at home on Tuesday, and then it’s the rematch with Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Saturday. Okoro was dressed out and went through warmups today, but was held out for the third straight game. If we can make it through Ole Miss at home, then I can only imagine he’d be a guarantee to return for the trip to Kentucky. Auburn would have a great chance to try and knock off the Cats at home, but we’ll still need some help from someone like Florida or Texas A&M (who’s suddenly hot) to hit UK with another loss.
Very good win today, and much needed. War Eagle!